If a customer were to visit your website, would you want them to comment on your site structure? For most sites, the answer to that question should be “no.” If they are thinking consciously about site structure, chances are they are confused by it. Very rarely do users get excited about how well a site is organized (unless they’re in our field). For that reason, many sites use similar hierarchical structures; web users are accustomed to certain web conventions, and when they come across something new, putting in the effort to learn a new system may be too much to ask. You don’t want your users to have to think about where the information they seek lives. That is why understanding traditional navigation conventions and constructing an intuitive site architecture should be an easy decision for your those in charge of your website.
Since a website should ideally be dynamic and will frequently be updated with new information and content (if you’re not updating your website, that’s a whole other issue), it will be valuable to reassess your site structure frequently. Ask: is my current site structure or section structure getting my users to convert? Are relevant paths and workflows made apparent to users? Are users finding the information that they seek? And the answers to these questions can’t just be thought up – there are useful quantitative and qualitative research methods available to help determine whether your site is performing at top speed.
These research methods and tools can help determine how to structure the site. If you have an existing site, what does your web analytics program tell you about the most visited pages? Are there site sections that users are not navigating towards that are crucial for influencing conversion? Maybe that content belongs on another page or in another site section. What are the top keywords that bring users to your site? Do those queries match the content you provide? Qualitative information gleaned from tools like site surveys (4Q and KISSinsights are great survey tools) and forums can be very useful in determining what discrepancies may exist between site goals and user goals. There are also several user-testing utilities (usertesting.com and feedbackarmy.com both offer reasonably priced user feedback tools) that can provide great insight into the on-site user experience. Compare your site goals to your users’ site goals, and determine how you can better get those goals to match.
In our experience, a mixture of ways that users can get to information is best suited for web usability. A combination of clear hierarchy and active linking is typically a successful model. With a clear hierarchy, users are able to navigate a site with little effort. Clear organization is amplified by communicating where users are within the hierarchy, using a device such as breadcrumbs. Also, in order to help move users to your most important content, use links and calls to action within page content.
The company website is one of the most important venues for branding. And as users gain more online experience and become more web savvy, they often expect websites to follow certain structural conventions. Not following web design best practices for the right reasons can make you stand out – not following for the wrong reasons (i.e. lack of resources put towards site) may detract from the trustworthiness of your brand and your customers will head for the back button. Make sure your site structure is a “no brainer;” don’t make users over think it.